COVER

Ready To Rip

A powerful Canadian team strives for its best Summer Olympics

BOB LEVIN July 22 1996
COVER

Ready To Rip

A powerful Canadian team strives for its best Summer Olympics

BOB LEVIN July 22 1996

Atlanta has more bravado than brains. The place calls itself the “capital of the New South,” dubs baseball’s Braves “America’s Team” and keeps yammering about becoming a “world-class city.” So there was no point telling folks there they had little chance of winning the Centennial Olympics over the likes of Toronto and Melbourne and especially Athens, sentiment’s darling. (Heck, to many locals Athens is just a town an hour’s drive east, home of the University of Georgia and its beloved Bulldogs— “How ’bout them Dawgs!” goes the cry.) And, after grabbing the Games anyway, Atlantans must have understood they couldn’t do the monumental organizing and building and beautifying without dipping deep into taxpayers’ pockets. Or could they? But then, that’s the Atlanta way: sweet-talk and sell, banking on a stylized Southern charm, undeniable corporate muscle and a steely optimist’s belief in tomorrow. After all, as Scarlett O’Hara put it, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Now tomorrow has come and Atlanta, like flashing-eyed Scarlett, is fussing and primping and smiling pretty for the big party. Call these America’s Games (NBC certainly is, and the network paid $625 million to call them anything it pleases). Sure, nearly 10,800 athletes from 197 countries—including a Canadian contingent of 304—is descending on the city for the July 19-to-Aug. 4 spectacular, the largest Olympics ever. And yes, they will be joined by an expected 1.5 million visitors, plus a worldwide TV audience predicted at 3.5 billion. But there will be no mistaking the home team. In a city seized by its own go-go boosterism—a city as American as Coca-Cola and CNN, its two most famous corporate citizens—the XXVI Olympiad is likely to be an in-your-face field day for flag-wavers and logo-wearers. Will U.S. basketball’s Dream Team III crush all comers by 30 points or 40? Will official supplier Reebok outjump rivals Nike and Converse?

The latter, of course, is simply the cost of doing business, and Canadians put off by the made-in-America flavor can catch the action on CBC, which forked over $28 million to cover it. Selling the TV rights, along with corporate sponsorships and event tickets, is how Atlanta organizers are meeting the Games’ $2.3-billion price tag—making these the first Olympics ever financed entirely by the private sector. Along the way they have built $700 million worth of new housing and sports facilities, and it is there—on the track, in the pool, on the manicured playing fields—that the rest of the world’s athletes will have their say.

The Canadian team features 100-m speedsters Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin, an all-star rowing squad headlined by Kathleen Heddle, Marnie McBean, Silken Laumann and Derek Porter, and top competitors in everything from cycling to sailing. In fact, the country’s record medal haul for a non-boycotted Summer Games—the 18 it toted home from Barcelona four years ago—could be in serious jeopardy, as Canadian Olympic officials are constrained to point out. “We don’t predict medals,” insists COA chief executive officer Carol Anne Letheren. “But I’ve certainly heard that if everything goes well we could be looking at upwards of 30.”

For Atlanta—the latest stop for this nomadic Olympic circus— putting on the Games has brought the usual array of host-city headaches. Organizers have taken heat over everything from ticket sales to displacement of the homeless; they are still sweating out traffic snarls, security nightmares and daytime temperatures that average 32° C this time of year—and have been shooting even higher. “It’s hotter than Hades out there now,” says Pat Glass, a bartender at Manuel’s Tavern, a hangout for Atlanta media types and politicians that boasts visits from the likes of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “You see people stepping on their tongues to get in here. They’re draggin’ em. They’re ready for a cold one.”

Atlantans—there are 3.4 million in the metro area—are also ready for the Games to begin at last. In a sense, the place that has fancied itself the “New York of the South” and “the Next Great International City”—that is at the very least the Slogan Capital of the World—has been striving for generations to shuck off southern stereotypes, to prove that it is not just some overgrown backwater burg. This is Atlanta’s time. Forget moonlight and magnolias; this is TV lights and skyscrapers glistening in the sun.

Take a good look, my dear, an historic moment—you can tell your grandchildren how you watched the Old South disappear. —Rhett Butler to Scarlett as Atlanta burned behind them in Gone With the Wind

The Old South—or what looks suspiciously like it—is actually still there, out on the blacktop country roads. Cotton is there, if no longer king, and so are white-columned mansions and shotgun shacks and “Get right with God” signs. There are, depending on which corner of the South the road runs through, live oaks, Spanish moss, peaches, pecans, honeysuckle, blackberries, crape myrtle—a lush landscape that feeds the evocative, overheated books and movies that have in turn kept the legends alive, that have made the region more mythic than real. But look closer: there are towns where black is black and white is white and railroad tracks run between them; where brick courthouses rise over shady squares that feature monuments to the brave boys who died for “the cause.” Which cause, of course, is never in question, the ubiquitous roadside markers plunging into detailed descriptions of the movements of this regiment under that general, the name of the war simply assumed. “In the South,” as Mark Twain put it late last * century, “the war is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it.”

It is all still out there—though not, generally speaking, in Atlanta. The city may sometimes trade on its fiery history (remember hockey’s Atlanta Flames, long since departed for Calgary); it may claim to venerate Margaret Mitchell, the newspaperwoman who penned Gone With the Wind (while letting her house crumble, leaving it to German automaker Daimler-Benz to promise to restore it). But visitors will not find Tara there, as Atlantans—like Canadians on the subject of igloos—are forever pointing out. “They want to see ladies in hoopskirts,” says Jim Babcock, media relations co-ordinator for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, describing pre-Olympic requests from European and Asian reporters. “They want to see peach fields. They want to see cotton fields, they want to see a plantation house. Tara—where is Tara?”

Gracious Tara, of course, was in the back lot of a Hollywood studio. And houses like it never existed in Atlanta, a commercial town originally called Terminus that sprang up in 1837 only because a major rail line happened to end there. It has always been a bustling place, looking habitually ahead. After the Second World War it soared past regional economic rivals like New Orleans and Birmingham by building what has since become America’s busiest airport. (When you die and go to heaven, locals say, you change planes in Atlanta.) One of its sons, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and Atlanta— pushed in part by image-conscious business leaders—declared itself “The City Too Busy To Hate” and quickly integrated, avoiding the agony of Selma and Montgomery.

By the 1970s and ’80s, says historian Bradley Rice, co-author of the 1995 book Georgia: Empire State of the South, ambitious Atlanta had “really bought into use of the word Sunbelt, as distinguished from South. Sunbelt being an upbeat word in which the linkages are to Dallas or Phoenix or LA, whereas in South the linkages are to Birmingham or Augusta or Richmond.” And now come the Olympics, the personal crusade of a prototypical Atlanta character—a hard-charging lawyer and ex-Georgia Bulldog football star named Billy Payne. But they are also, notes Rice, “a culmination of a desire the boosters of Atlanta have had for about a century.”

The Atlanta that the world will see is, on first glance, a generic American city. While locals can find their way over winding side streets through leafy in-town neighborhoods (prettiest in spring when the dogwoods and azaleas are in breathtaking bloom), the main drags are featureless strips of fast-food joints, shopping malls and office parks; the suburbs keep growing like kudzu, the voracious vine (imported from Japan) that ate the South. Downtown is a small, peculiar island of skyscrapers. In normal times, it bustles by day with business-suited whites and blacks—Atlanta boasts a thriving black middle class, born in part of six black colleges—then empties out at night, the whites generally heading north, the blacks south.

Not exactly the image Atlanta’s cheerleaders want to project: a very vertical ghost town that, further out, is also home to a startling assortment of strip clubs. Scrambling to spruce up, organizers have built a new downtown park and Coke erected its own Olympic City, a $40-million interactive theme park. But in the process, a city that prides itself on racial harmony has drawn fire for displacing minority businesses and the mostly black homeless. Only a spate of bad publicity prompted authorities to abandon a plan to buy one-way bus tickets for homeless people who promised to leave town and not return. “It was a stupid idea,” moans the Chamber’s Babcock.

Law enforcers are also gearing up for action in a city that, according to 1994 FBI statistics, was America’s most prone to violent crime. Last month, after a regional sweep, police announced the arrests of 765 “career criminals” (and vowed not to let others out of jail to make room for them—“We will just put a little more water in the soup,” is how Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett phrased it). The greatest fear, though, is not local hoods but ideology-driven terrorists—the twin spectres of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Arab hostage-takers killed 11 Israeli athletes, and last year’s Oklahoma City bombing by homegrown militants that left 168 people dead. In response, federal, state and local agencies are deploying more than 25,000 soldiers and police and keeping U.S. special forces teams on alert. But even that gargantuan effort is no guarantee. Some 2,000 pounds of fertilizer and explosives—of the sort used to make the Oklahoma City bomb—have been stolen in the Atlanta area over the past year.

Then there is the searing heat. Air conditioning is obligatory in Atlanta (in fact, it is one of the prime factors behind the postwar boom throughout the Sunbelt; before air conditioning, says historian Rice, “you couldn’t convince most Northerners to remain here, particularly corporate types”). But while the athletes’ accommodations will be cool and comfortable, that won’t help track-and-field performers or spectators at open-air Olympic Stadium. As a result, many races will start in the dawn’s early light or late at night. In Conyers, east of Atlanta, horses in the equestrian events will be sprayed with mist thrown by large fans. But at a recent training session, says Betsy Gilman, one of 40,000 Olympic volunteers, “the sun was so bright, sunglasses just didn’t cut it. We were under a covered arena and had all the Coke products we wanted, and it was just bearable.”

Atlantans hope they can say the same about the dreaded Olympic-sized traffic jams—there is often gridlock at the best of times. But those worries aside, visitors will likely find Atlanta far more than bearable. If they tire of Buckhead, the trendy, northern district along Peachtree Street (actually, one of 55 roads named Peachtree), they can seek out the more obscure down-home restaurants that stuff their patrons full of fried chicken, black-eyed peas and apple pie; the iced-tea refills are free. Or they can check out the Olympic Arts Festival, including the High Museum’s telling exhibit of old photos called Picturing the South: blank-eyed slaves, white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen, young blacks sitting in at a segregated lunch counter.

But those are other times, other places. They are not the South most of the world will see over the 17 days of the Games. Atlanta is turning its scrubbed face to the spotlights, ready for its close-up. It may not measure up to its world-class pretensions; it may, as local pollster Claibourne Darden puts it, be “fairly colloquial—a big Southern city that’s got some tall buildings.” (Some Atlantans openly snicker at the city’s pseudo-sophistication, like the redneck writer who greeted the arrival of sushi bars by declaring, Hell, we’ve had sushi around here for years—it’s called bait.) But now Atlanta also has the Olympics, a prize it wasn’t supposed to win. And now the world’s athletes and their fans are jetting in with Georgia on their minds and money in their pockets—settling in for what the city promises will be “the most memorable Olympic Games ever.” If they aren’t, there is always a consolation: Atlanta’s boosters will say they were anyway. □